on 6 September 2012
So, just what the world needs, another book in the ongoing faith vs. atheist war of words. Except this isn't. Several people will be wrong-footed by seeing Francis Spufford's name attached to a book supporting Christianity. As one of the UK's most erudite writers of `factual' fiction and most respected reviewers of science fiction it will come as a shock to find he has published a book which brings to bear his full powers of argument in favour of Christian belief.
However, 'Unapologetic' is not a case for the defence, indeed it's almost the opposite, it's a deeply personal exposition on the effect that Christian belief has had on Spufford at an emotional level. Quite rightly he has not sought to provide proof or evidence for the existence of God, it is simply a report from inside the mind (and possible soul) of a believer and the writer is fully aware of what this means in the context of his previous work.
Francis Spufford is no fool; his previous works are the result of meticulous research, feverish enthusiasm and a precision in writing that is a joy to read. Whether he is getting inside the minds of polar explorers or imagining the possibility of how the Soviet economic dream might have worked, he is never short on detail, wit and supporting knowledge. 'Unapologetic' is different insomuch as it appears to be written `from the heart' and as such it feels a little like the follow up to 'The Child That Books Built'. Whereas that book explored the constructs created from the borrowed world view of authors this book concerns itself with the personal effect of faith and more importantly the effects on ourselves of our self-awareness when we fail and let others down.
For the most part, 'Unapologetic' focuses on that most un-evolutionary of feelings - guilt; that sensation that we have let everyone down, the dreadful realisation that we have not made the best of our lives and that we might well have squandered years of possibility. It homes in on those terribly dark nights when we lie awake knowing that, not to put to fine a point on it (and Spufford doesn't) we have f***ed up everything. Where do we go from there? How do we, when faced with our failing selves alone, begin again? What do we do when we have alienated everyone, how do we begin to re-build our emotional selves?
And there are no easy answers. This is one man's response and as he states, `God is not a get out of jail free card', but it is God's call to arms that spurs us onto making the soul wrenching changes that enables us to move ourselves slowly but surely away from the pit of our own making.
`Unapologetic' puts up an elegant two fingers to the acolytes of Dawkins et al by saying you cannot possibly know how I feel and you have no right to guess. Emotions and feelings cannot be measured (yes, temperature changes, sweat production and pupil dilation can but that's subtly different to the causes of these physical changes), and as Spufford states in the footnote on page 68 `you can't disprove the existence of a feeling'. That's the crux of it really; when we are honest with ourselves we feel things that cannot be explained and which only make sense in the context of something bigger, something outside of ourselves, all these soul consuming emotions and feelings which have no place or purpose in the blind continuity of our genetic code actually exist. We feel guilt, we feel love, we feel regret and none of them can be satisfactorily explained away by any evolutionary-biological explanations about group bonding or societal strength. They are the dark silt that clogs our mind and which only a cool draft of giving into something `outside' can wash away.
A final comment, this is by far the sweariest `Christian' book ever published and as such should prove an interesting challenge to church goers as it does to non-believers!
on 13 September 2012
I have a habit of marking passages in books, with a pencil line running down the margin at the side of words I want to refer back to. Many of my books have a few such markings, and some have many. Occasionally a book comes along in which this habit soon becomes pointless, as every paragraph of every page is worth remembering. 'Unapologetic' is one such book.
I read a fair amount of books about religion, some serious theology, some more devotional spiritual literature; this is neither, and I wish there was much more literature like it. If your tired of the dryness of much theology and the gentility of much Christian spirituality, then this is for you. A real breath of fresh air in the God debate, something that doesn't seem possible I know, but Spufford has done it. It is, first and foremost, a truly passionate book about Spufford's religious life and convictions. He offers no easy solutions to the basic theological riddles Christians have to live with, and in fact spends several pages pretty much demolishing the very idea of theodicy - and what a relief it is too, to find a Christian author who actually doesn't want us to swallow the excuses theologians make for God. This book might actually challenge some Christians as much as it does non-believers, in a good and necessary way. No, this is something else; an unblinking, completely honest, head-on look at what it is that Christianity really means for us, as emotional human beings, rather than as walking intellects.
Some more sensitive souls might be put off by Spufford's strong language and imagery. This would be a great shame, as the book also contains some passages of great lyrical beauty, one of which is quite simply the best description I have ever read of what prayer is actually like. Not the esoteric stages of contemplative prayer that few Christians ever reach, but the ordinary, everyday kind of prayer that most of us can muster.
There is a streak of real anger and indignation in the book too, but also a lot of dark humour and razor sharp wit. It is, as the cover claims, unhampered by niceness. Completely refreshing. I finished the book and turned straight back to page one.
It is also for anyone who just enjoys great prose.
on 14 October 2012
Excellent and engaging read and I would recommend to all, regardless of where positioned in the "God debate". The last sentence in the final "notes" disclaims any role of the author as a spokesperson for the C of E but this he obviously is (if only unofficial and by dint of his membership). If his institution has any sense, they will wrest him to the fore because the account does far more to help one understand the mind and reasons of a "believer" than any of the usual godspeak or pulpit proselytising. Perhaps it even gives permission for those of us floating around in no mans' land to look in again from beyond the pale. All thought provoking. I only wish he hadn't exampled The Adagio from Mozart's clarinet concerto - it brought back terrible buried memories of that grade-whatever-it-was exam!
At least one reviewer has complained that this books is "unresearched" (as the author says), but for me, this was part of its strength; it is one man's experience, told, as it were, from the inside. The author doesn't try to "prove" his point, but describes how he has come to arrive at the faith he holds, and why. He doesn't preach, or persuade; he tells it is it is, leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. And what this amounts to is, paradoxically, a very persuasive account of the Christian faith.
Spufford does make short work of prominent atheists, such as Dawkins, but again, this is his view; not one pressed upon the reader. And it is all the more strong for that. He paints a vivid picture of Christ as he might have been and how he must have been perceived, within the society in which he found himself, and I found this particularly moving. He admits repeatedly that there is no proof for the existence of God; that most Christians - himself included - have frequent doubts. But what he has experienced for the main part does transcend those doubts. Most of all, he brings home the reality (for him) that Christianity makes sense. It is an impossible road to follow, but that that's okay; it is only by reaching for the impossible that we manage, just occasionally, to grasp the possible.
This book is very readable, and at times, I found it hard to put down. And if the language is at times crude, then that fits in with the informal style of the writing, and didn't bother me (although some readers might object). I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in Christianity, whether believer or non-believer. Whoever you are, it is likely to make for absorbing, and at times entertaining, reading.
on 19 February 2013
This seeks to introduce the Christian faith from a fresh angle.
It's certainly different. Spufford says that he's not opposed to evidential apologetics, but thinks that there's plenty of that kind of material around. But, on the other hand, he claims that no-one can know whether Christianity is true or not. Shades of `a leap in the dark'. What he has attempted, then, is to show `why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense'.
As anyone who has read it will tell you, it's wonderfully, sometimes hilariously, written. In not claiming to speak for the Church of England (of which he is a communicant member) and in not writing for a conventional `Christian' publisher the author has felt free to write in his own way, and to tell us what's on his mind without worrying too much about who might be looking over his shoulder. I suppose it's this attitude of `I'm speaking for myself, not on behalf of the institutional Christianity' that accounts, in part, for the occasional swearing.
Again, as many readers will tell you, Spufford finds a refreshing way to get us to face up to the universality of sin (which he re-names HPtFtU [don't ask]). Also, like others, I would pick out the chapter on the life of Jesus as having an extraordinary power to see its subject in a fresh way.
He fires deliciously barbed arrows at the John-and-Yoko `Imagine' brand of utopianism (`the My Little Pony of philosophical statements'). He makes us giggle at the hopeless atheist bus slogan. He correctly diagnoses the problem of those who denounce Christianity as the source of all evil (`I mainly think: read more history, mate').
It's not a `safe' book, in any sense. It is `unsafe', because it will make Christians and non-Christians question some of their favourite prejudices and assumptions.
But it is, unfortunately, also `unsafe' because it has some glaring errors and omissions.
Spufford has already admitted somewhere that he made a big mistake with the `Lewis Trilemma'. (Good for him, I suppose. But you need to be a bit more careful before you go into print. It should be left to us bloggers to say things we don't really mean, to misrepresent other people's opinions, and to forget to check up on our facts.)
There are a few interesting memory lapses. For instances, he attributes the description of God as `the ground of being' to St. Paul, whereas I think you'll find it was Paul Tillich (although I will admit that Paul did quote something similar at one point).
The section where the author talks about his personal experience of God is just very weak. Which is odd, given what he's trying to achieve in this book. His God seems very distant.
The chapter on Jesus is, as I've said, highly original and deeply insightful. But his attempts to fuse the human and the divine aspects in Jesus were, to me, emotionally unconvincing. His Jesus dies, very definitely, but it is difficult to discern much atonement in this death. His Jesus rises, less definitely, but again we can't quite see why or to what intent.
Where this book comes spectacularly off the rails is in its treatment of last things. Spufford has little interest in heaven, he tells us, because he's much more concerned about the present life. And what's more, he announces with a fanfare, hell doesn't exist at all. Almost all Christians gave up believing in hell years ago. It's official. Trouble is, there is no argument here, only assertion. No consideration of scriptural teaching, and no sense that Christianity does not make emotional sense if you try to magic away its convictions about ultimate hope and ultimate justice.
On personal ethics (particularly personal sexual ethics) Spufford thinks that the Bible is more or less silent, and Christians should therefore mind their own business about what consenting adults do in private. Well, maybe Christians do sometimes think and behave like prudish curtain-twitchers. But Spufford will have to do better than his own brand of naive secular liberalism. As someone once said: "Blessed are the pure in heart".
Read with discretion by someone who already has a better idea than the author of the doctrinal shape of the Christian faith, this book will serve as a welcome blast of fresh air. But others should read it alongside a more reliable guide.
on 18 September 2012
The most immediately obvious aspect of this book is its prose style - fresh and refreshing, a lively mixing of colloquialisms and literary references, a vivid familiarity with contemporary popular culture but also with academic philosophy and theology, many jokes and witticisms and surprising images, judicious and delightful deployment of footnotes and asides, a continually forceful but friendly and considerate engagement with the reader. The book is in consequence unputdownable, even though it has no table of contents and no introductory overview, and the chapter headings are intriguing and inviting, not explanatory. Theologically, the author is quite conservative - most of the time he seems to have a realist not non-realist view of God, and he seems to believe Christianity is essentially superior to other religions. But also he manages to be humble and tentative, and to speak to you not only with passion and exuberance but also, sometimes, with a beautifully still small voice - he's really excellent company. I enjoyed his book immensely.
on 1 December 2012
This is one of the most refreshing reads I've had for ages - I saw the Guardian extract and ordered my copy on the strength of that. I've read other Spufford books and found all of them to be creative and unusual. His assertive and 'unapologetic' stance on the value of having a spiritual life beyond the distractions we all suffer was one that made me feel like cheering out loud. And I learned the most valuable acronym I've ever come across: 'HPtFtU' which so accurately describes the mess we get into even when that's the last thing we want.
on 14 January 2013
The language is, shall we say, interesting, but makes the right sort of impact. He sometimes struggles to communicate what he is trying to say, but then, he is talking about senses that are indescribable in words. This makes some passages of the book a little bit difficult, but it is definitely worth the effort. Would definitely consider lending this book (even giving it) to someone genuinely interested in the Christian faith but is put off by easy 'text-book' explanations.
on 25 July 2013
I just had to join with other positive opinions. I have read a lot apologies and critiques of Christianity, but this is really something else. I spoiled my books with hundreds of markings. Most of them are positive, but even those where I think differently are always interesting and penetrating. As a psychologist I often wonder why some people believe and some don't. Of course, there are many quite plausible explanations, but a large part of believing is a mystery. Why religions touch some people so profoundly, and some feel nothing, or it is a nuisance for them. In this book the author raises all the important questions, clarifies them, but of course can not give any final answers. That is the strength of the book.
on 18 January 2013
I'd been looking for ages for a book on Christianity which didn't bore me, talk down to me, or assume familiarity with academic theological abstractions. This is it. Like other reviewers I hugely enjoyed the refreshing tone, and roller-coaster style of presenting some crucial issues in a lively and down-to-earth manner. The friend who gave to to me for Christmas said,"I know you've had enough of religious books for the moment, but read this - the sweariest book on God, ever." Read it, reread it, and don't be browbeaten any more by the like of Dawkins.
My only reservation? It spends too long on the internal, experiential stuff. I don't think everyone will respond to his account of his "sense" of a presence. Near the end, he gets to "but what can I DO?" That's really where I'd be starting, for myself. But this isn't a deal-breaker, everyone's different. He talks about the way we all mess up, the problem of suffering, of judgement,and gives a very plausible retelling of the Jesus story. Some of the paragraphs are rather indigestible, but I'm not surprised given he wrote most of it on a caffeine buzz. It's a brilliant book.